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SENDA and legal education

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9 June 2004

What are the implications of disability discrimination for law teachers and how can we address them? This event drew on the experience and expertise of law teachers in developing learning and teaching practice in the context of the Special Education Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA), with the aim of developing a collective action plan for addressing issues of disability and special needs within law teaching in the UK.

Ann Holmes (Staffordshire University) opened the day by raising key issues and setting the context for change. Cindy Williams-Findlay (University of Wolverhampton) then addressed the development of an institutional policy for disabiity.

Two case studies followed on the implications for learning and teaching of blind and visually impaired students (Sue Wright and Debbie Butler, Staffordshire University) and of dyslexic students (Martin Cartwright, University of Wolverhampton). Finally, Sue Lee and Ian Watts (Staffordshire University) presented a session on making Web materials SENDA compliant.

Many delegates requested further advice on information regarding dyslexia – following the event we have collected details of organisations and resources for supporting students with dyslexia.

Here Ann Holmes, Dean of Law & Faculty Manager for Learning & Teaching at Staffordshire University Law School, reports on the event:

UKCLE held a successful workshop on 9 June 2004 at Staffordshire University Law School on meeting the requirements of SENDA. The workshop attracted a wide range of delegates representing undergraduate, postgraduate and professional awards in law. The aim of the workshop was not only to share good practice but to identify particular issues and areas for further development, with the focus on teaching, learning and assessment as opposed to physical resources – the former continues to raise many issues, whereas the latter has for the most part been dealt with.

The event took the form of a series of case studies, allowing delegates to see what had happened in a particular institution and comment on how their own institution would have dealt with it – this in turn lead to an open discussion. Much of the day involved the discussion of the policies and practices at other institutions with the intention of being able to learn from each other. Guidance was also provided on developing SENDA compliant Web-based materials.

There was general consensus amongst the delegates that there had been a steady increase in the number of special needs students, and that such students had a diverse range of needs. One major issue was how we identify these needs, particularly where students do not provide any information on their application form. Most institutions had adopted an inclusive approach, openly encouraging such students to come forward to discuss the nature of their disability and any particular needs they may have. This usually involved personal tutors and central support services.

One way of overcoming the problems relating to identification is to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with the result that all materials and assessments would automatically meet the needs of all students. Discussions revealed that whilst this is an ideal, it had not proved possible for such an approach to be adopted in any of the institutions represented at the event.

A key area was the nature and level of support provided within law schools and faculties, as opposed to centrally by the university, for special needs students. A number of delegates were able to provide information on their role as special needs coordinator for their school or faculty, a role which also involved a liaison role with central support services, the examinations office and award leaders on the individual needs of students, including the drawing up of an individual learning contract. Certainly this approach generally appeared to be successful and provided a clear pathway for students who had been reluctant to inform the law school or university of their disability as part of the admission process and wished to take this up with the law school or faculty at a later date. The use of learning contracts was particularly prevalent on Legal Practice Courses.

While special needs students generally have a diverse range of needs, the special need which continues to pose the most issues in terms of teaching, learning and assessment is dyslexia. All the institutions represented had provisions for providing extra time for examinations, however one major issue was the adaptation or provision of alternative assessments for dyslexic students. This is a contentious area, and we left unresolved whether traditional methods of assessment are appropriate for dyslexic students and what action should be taken.

Another issue relating to dyslexic students which became a major focus for discussion was the tension between the Law Benchmark Statement, the Professional Bodies Joint Announcement for Qualifying Law Degrees and the need to meet the requirements of SENDA. Whilst the debate was lengthy, this was another issue which we found we could not resolve, and continues to be an area which poses a significant problem for law schools at both undergraduate and professional levels. Delegates felt strongly that communication, spelling and grammar are such an integral part of assessment in law that they cannot be ignored. This will continue to be a contentious issue until the Professional Bodies offer clearer guidance on the Joint Announcement and special needs students.

Other issues discussed at length:

  • support from central support services and the nature of that support, which tends to be variable depending on which university you work in
  • how to make teaching materials, particularly Web-based, SENDA compliant using software packages
  • the provision of work experience through legal clinics or placements and the problems faced by special needs students undertaking such work
On reflection the event engendered a great deal of discussion to the extent that delegates were reluctant to leave, which must be a first. Information was exchanged freely, including policies and learning contracts. Many delegates reported back that they either felt confident that they were not falling behind other institutions or some cases were well on the way to being SENDA compliant. However, there were clearly a number of unresolved issues which will continue to provide the focus for discussion, particularly in the light of the widening participation agenda.

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